Last week, I received a torrent of comment on my column about the astounding efforts by Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, to block a new bridge over the Detroit River, which would provide competition to his very profitable monopoly.
Virtually every corporate interest and political leader wants the new bridge, which would be known as the New International Trade Crossing. But Moroun has donated heavily to many legislators. And, on Oct. 19, the Senate Economic Development Committee voted 3-2 not to report a bill authorizing the bridge to the full Senate, even though Gov. Rick Snyder has made this a top priority. All three no votes were Republicans -- and all three have taken campaign contributions from Matty Moroun.
Here are some sample online comments:
* “Woof” asked: “So who were the three GOP scumbags who voted against it?”
The answer: Sens. Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, Geoff Hansen of Hart and Mike Kowall, of White Lake Township. They all accepted money from Moroun, as did one senator who voted for the bridge.
The Detroit Free Press has reported that Moroun family members contributed $9,700 to six of seven committee members, the only exception being Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.
The two Democrats on the committee did not vote at all. They said they would have supported the bridge had Republicans agreed to community benefits for the mostly desolate Delray area where the U.S. portion of the new bridge would go.
* Reader “Les” wrote: “Your editorial ... led me today to call the senators involved and I asked them if they thought that Matty Maroun gave them the money because they were good looking?
“I thought it tainted their whole involvement in the process. To their credit, most of them listened, except Mike Nofs’ office, who hung up. … If this is not bribery, it surely would be a conflict of interest.”
* “Concerned” commented: “Watching this unfold over the last year, you could see this coming, given the large expenditures from the Ambassador Bridge company on television and direct mail.
“There were enough half-truths and untruths from the bridge company that it confounded the public and scared the legislators”
* Reader “Duanel” disagreed with me: “ Mr. Power uses the classic innuendo journalism ... it is spin on both sides and everyone who thinks differently is diluting (sic) themselves.”
* Reader “Jeffrey” was frustrated: “I can’t begin to express my frustration over the political corruption in our state … I have written letters to my elected representatives and personally called them, but nothing seems to work. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to match Matty’s political ‘contributions.' Which begs the question, ‘Who do our elected politicians represent – the voters who elected them or the Matty Morouns ...?”
* “Joeblog” wrote: “Your commentary, like that of most media types, is incomplete and one-sided ... too bad that you have never calculated how much taxpayer money all governments have wasted so far on a project designed to try to force the Morouns to sell out cheaply so a bridge right beside the Ambassador can be built.”
Well, this argument is far from over. But all this raises a legitimate question: “What’s improper influence peddling, and what’s not?” I’ve been observing politics in Lansing for nearly 50 years, and I cannot recall an instance in which a sitting legislator has ever been convicted of bribery. That suggests either lawmakers have been pure as the driven snow or that the Michigan bribery statutes are complicated and confusing and set a high bar against indictment.
I can’t -- and shouldn’t -- resurrect history. I can’t fix the Michigan bribery statutes. And I certainly don’t want to imply that legislators are on the take in this -- or any other -- matter.
But I can observe that all the campaign contributions flowing from Moroun interests are raising all kinds of questions about the workings of the political process in Lansing. And those questions risk impugning the reputations of some Michigan lawmakers.
Everybody -- skeptical Michigan citizens, legislators whose reputations are at risk, even the Ambassador Bridge company -- would be better off if a thorough public review of this mess would result in tightened standards that would prevent single-interest groups from dominating in important public policy debates with overwhelming campaign contribution strategies.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.